Monday, April 30, 2012

A Living Salad Wall

A neighbor of mine is interested in installing a vertical garden, or living wall, to cover a concrete wall in his back yard. As he and I have been doing research and talking about this project, I've become inspired to do a little experimenting of my own.

I bought one of Bright Green's GroVert living wall planters (Amazon affiliate link) to see see how their system works. This 10-cell, polymer panel measures 8" wide, 18" tall and 4" deep. Multiple panels can be linked together to create a solid living wall.
The cells of the planter are set at a 45 degree angle to keep water and soil from falling out once the panel is mounted on the wall. Very clever! 
At the base of each cell is a "moisture mat" - another smart idea - that holds water and keeps plant roots from drying out. 

Here's the fun part - planting! I decided to fill my panel with salad greens and a few herbs. But there are lots of other possibilities, including succulents, foliage plants and annuals for sun or shade, depending on where you plan to install your vertical garden.

For my "living salad wall" I wanted lots of color and texture, plus I wanted organic starts since I plan to make salad eventually with what I've planted. So I headed to West Seattle Nursery to see what I could find. I came away with lettuces: 'Wildfire Mix,' 'Salad Bowl Red,' 'Winter Density,' a spicy mesculun mix, and endive. I also got 4" starts of cilantro, Italian parsley, French thyme and and 'Apricot Trifle' nasturtium.

I realized as I planted these that it might have been better to have planted less in each cell, and filled in with more potting soil. It is tempting, though, to do just what I did, because a 4" pony-pack fits really nicely into each cell. But no worries, I can easily revise the planting if necessary as the season progresses.

OK, with the planting done, the next step was to water thoroughly and let the panel sit at a slight angle to drain before mounting. While the panel was draining, I installed the bracket to hold the panel onto my fence.
You'll have to furnish your own fasteners. Fortunately, I had some galvanized wood screws on hand.

And here it is - my living salad wall! 

To top it off, I added an irrigator box.
This little box mounts on top of the panel and holds a quart of water. (I'm showing it here with the lid open. After adding water, you'll want to close the lid to keep dirt from getting in.) Small holes in the bottom of the box let water slowly trickle down into the planter, keeping the plants and the moisture pads irrigated. 

It will be fun to see how this works out. As with any gardening experiment, I expect some plants to do well and others will need to be replaced. If I get a few salads out of it, I'll consider it a success. Regardless, the planter and irrigator will still be around for me to use in another season. 

Saturday, April 28, 2012

Changing My Mind About Spirea

I've never been a fan of spirea. When I hear the name, what comes to mind is one of the big, sprawling bridal veil varieties (Spirea cantoniensis, S. prunifolia, or S. x vanhouttei). These plants produce masses of white flowers in spring that, to me, smell unpleasantly musty. I don't want to be around them.

But there is a mound form of spirea (Spirea japonica) that has won me over. There are several plants in this group, many of which stay below 3' tall, all with striking foliage. Cultivars such as 'Goldflame,' 'Goldmound,' and 'Limemound,' certainly live up to their names in the garden. I've been admiring some of these on my regular trips to the local PCC store, where they are planted in the dry stream bed garden out front.
Here you see examples of what I assume are either 'Goldmound' or 'Goldflame' in the PCC garden.

So it happened that yesterday I was working in a corner of my yard that I haven't been happy with for a while. Most of the plants work well together, but there's a spot where nothing has quite fit or been able to thrive. I took out the plants that weren't working and weeded the bed. While I worked, I thought about what might fill in that area and pull it all together. Then I headed up to West Seattle Nursery for more inspiration. Here's what I came home with:
This is Spirea japonica 'Magic Carpet,' a Pacific Northwest Great Plant Pick. It will hold this yellow/chartreuse color all season and will have pink flowers in summer. This vivid foliage, edged with bits of bronze, red and coral, appears to be lit from within. Mature size will be about 2' x 2'. 

I've planted it next to 'Red Fred' heather. We'll see how they get along. 

Thursday, April 26, 2012

Starting Basil From Seed

If you've ever tried to grow basil here, you know that it isn't fond of our cool, maritime Northwest climate. Plants set out in May often sulk, refuse to grow - and then die. I used to work at a local nursery and watch customers come in week after week to buy basil plants to replace the ones they lost the week before. We recommended cloches and bringing plants in at night until temperatures warmed, but that advice fell on deaf ears. Visions of pesto, bruschetta, and caprese salads got in the way, and plants went into the ground much too early.

All that said, it is possible to grow basil successfully in Seattle. If you get seedlings started indoors in mid- to late April, they will be ready for transplanting in early June when the soil has finally warmed up.

It is easy to do this. All you need is a sunny windowsill, some potting soil, a container for the soil - an empty egg carton will work just fine - and some seed.

The fun part is the seed! You generally always have more varieties to choose from in seeds, for any type of plant, than you will find when you buy seedlings already started. Growers can afford to grow what they believe they can sell, and they aren't too willing to try exotic varieties. You, however, have options.

Take a look at this list of basil varieties from Botanical Interests (a Seattle Garden Ideas affiliate). You can choose from lemon basil, lime basil, purple basil, Thai basil, Italian basil, Greek basil, plus organic and heirloom blends. Imagine the possibilities!

It will take about 4-6 weeks for your seedlings to be ready to plant outside. You will need to harden the seedlings off - meaning that you gradually acclimate them to being outside. One way to do this is to cover them with a floating row cover, like reemay fabric, after you plant them. The fabric will keep the plants from being sunburned during the day and hold heat in overnight. After a few days, you can remove the fabric and the plants should be hardy enough to thrive.

So there you have it - everything you need to know about getting basil to grow in Seattle. Enjoy!

Tuesday, April 24, 2012

Eartheasy Offers Solutions for Sustainable Living

One of the great benefits of having a blogging business is the opportunity to partner with remarkable companies that I would never have known about otherwise. Eartheasy, the newest affiliate sponsor for Seattle Garden Ideas, is one of those companies.

Eartheasy is a family-owned business dedicated to helping people improve their quality of life by offering information and products for sustainable living. The company founders, Greg and Lindsay Seaman, have 30 years of experience living sustainably and share that first-hand knowledge with their customers online. You can read the story of how their company evolved here.

On their website, you will find products for your home, water conservation, non-toxic pest control and energy efficiency. Of course, the category I am most excited about is their Yard and Garden section. They have a good selection of composters, raised bed systems, natural weed control products, watering gear, potting supplies and more. In their Guides section, there are dozens of articles on sustainable living, gardening, eating, playing, clothing and more.

Other things you should know about Eartheasy:
• They plant a tree for every order placed via their partnership with the Trees for the Future Foundation.
• Eartheasy is carbon neutral.
• Eartheasy is an EPA WaterSense Partner.
• Eartheasy is a member of Green America, a non-profit dedicated to creating a socially just and environmentally sustainable society.
• Eartheasy is a member of Sierra Club Green Home, which aims to help Americans make their homes more energy efficient, healthy and environmentally sustainable.

I hope you'll take a few minutes to visit the Eartheasy website. Thank you.

Jora Insulated Compost Tumblers -

Friday, April 20, 2012

Get Off To A Good Start With Seed From Botanical Interests

I'm happy to introduce to you a new affiliate sponsor, Botanical Interests. Curtis Jones, who started the company with his wife Judy Seaborn in 1995, describes their business this way, "I like to say that we're a gardening education company that just happens to sell seeds. Our packets are like mini-encyclopedias, full of information to inspire and assist every type of gardener."

The illustration below (from the Botanical Interests website) shows you what Curtis is talking about. Each packet features a beautiful botanical illustration of the flower, herb, or vegetable. It includes a description of the plant and detailed instructions for starting the seed. There is a plant tag on the back. And that's just the beginning!

Inside the packet is more information: plant history, tips on growing and harvesting, how to avoid pests and diseases, recipes and more.

The seed inside these packets is something special, too. Botanical Interests carries over 500 varieties of high quality seeds, including many varieties of heirloom seeds and 150 varieties of organic seeds. NO GMOs. None of their seed is treated. The germination rate is checked before packaging to assure quality. 

Curtis and Judy are committed to preserving the tradition of passing along gardening knowledge from generation to generation. "We're helping people reconnect with some of that lost art," Judy says. When you visit their website, you will find articles and their blogs devoted to helping people get the most out of their gardening experience and create traditions of their own. Which includes cooking! Their blog, Seed to Saucepan, offers creative ideas for preparing the wonderful things you grow in your garden. 

I hope you'll click the banner at the top of this post and take a few minutes to visit the Botanical Interests website. Whether you are new to starting plants from seed or an old hand, I believe you will find something of interest and value there. 

Thank you. 
(For more information about how affiliate programs work, read this article.) 

Tuesday, April 17, 2012

The Case of the Missing Excavator - In Which I Solve a Mystery Involving Google Ads

I was having dinner with a friend of mine the other night and she asked me about the excavator I recommend on this blog. I told her that I haven't recommended one. She insisted that she'd seen his name here. I told her I would check my list of recommendations, but I couldn't think of anyone who specializes in excavation. The next day, I looked at my Links section, which is where I list people and services that I recommend. Sure enough, no excavator.

But this still bothered me. My friend is smart, sharp and she reads my blog regularly. Why was she so sure she had seen an excavator listed here? Then it struck me! She probably saw the excavator listed in one of the Google ads running on my page.

The reason I bring this up, is because conversations like this one show me that we bloggers haven't done a very good job of explaining the ways we are compensated for our work. As a result, our readers make assumptions based on past experience with traditional advertising. They may think, as my friend probably did, that if a company's name appears on my pages, it means that I know who they are. Which isn't necessarily true in the case of Google ads, as I will explain.

I would venture to say that most of the ads you see on blogs are based on business models that are unique to the internet. (For an explanation of how affiliate marketing works, for example, take a look at the Support This Blog section or read this post.) If you read blogs, you are part of these business models, whether you understand them or not. So it is only fair for you to know how they work.

Google ads are different from affiliate marketing and typical, pay-for-space advertising. You can identify a Google ad in a couple of ways: by looking for the little sideways triangle in the upper right hand corner that says AdChoices when you mouse over it or looking at the lower right corner for a small caption that says either AdChoices or Ads by Google.

Google doesn't pay bloggers for ad space. We do get a very small sum for impressions - a penny or two (literally) for every 100 or so page views. But most of the revenue comes from readers clicking on ads.

Google doesn't give bloggers a choice of which companies will appear in their ads. (Which is how the excavator showed up here without my knowing.) We can filter out certain categories of ads, like politics, religion, drugs, etc. We can block specific URLs, which allows a company to avoid having their direct competitors' ads show up on their pages. Beyond that, Google serves up whatever ads they believe make sense based on a blog's content and a reader's search history.

Ads are also "localized." When I visit a blog, I see ads for Seattle businesses because that's where I live. Readers in New York see ads for businesses based in New York. This is true internationally, too. I have had readers as far away as the UK, Thailand, and Ukraine click on ads they found on one of my blogs. Google Translate makes it possible for readers to access content and advertising in their languages, suited to their locations.

How much do we get paid when a reader clicks on an ad? Well, it's complicated. Here's a video from Google's chief economist that explains.

I hope this helps to clear up some of the mystery around Google ads and how they work. I don't pretend to understand the process completely, but at least now you know as much as I do.

Monday, April 16, 2012

Comely Camellias

Two types of camellias grow well in the Seattle area: Camellia japonica and its smaller, daintier cousin, Camellia sasanqua.

The larger of the two, C. japonica, is in blooming right now in Seattle and will continue into May. There are many varieties of this shrub, the Sunset Western Garden Book lists an entire page of them, but the most familiar form is the one shown below with deep, rose pink flowers.

Camellias want some protection from hot sun, although you see plenty of them doing just fine in western exposures here in the mild summer climate of western Washington. Once established, they are quite drought tolerant. They do well in the acid soils of the Seattle area. Fertilize with an acid plant food shortly after blooming to assist in setting healthy flower buds for the coming year.

Prune these shrubs just after they bloom. Large specimens can be limbed up to make them into small trees. Note that flower buds for the coming year start to form within weeks of the last blooms. If you wait too long in the season to do your pruning, you risk losing next year's flowers.

Camellia sasanqua is much smaller and finer textured than C. japonica. Many varieties have single flowers, as you see above, and bloom time is December through January. Sasanquas offer a greater variety of flower colors and variegations than C. japonica. Shop for them when they are in bloom to be sure of what you are getting. Sasanquas make excellent subjects for espallier. 

Sunday, April 15, 2012

Pieris japonica

Lily of the Valley Shrubs (Pieris japonica) are about half way through their spring bloom and color show right now. These graceful, slow growing shrubs are popular in the Seattle area, and for good reasons.

First, there are the flowers. Large clusters of bell-shaped flowers appear in early March.
Perhaps most commonly seen in Seattle are plants with white flowers.

Flower color choices also include shades of pink, such as 'Valley Rose' and 'Valley Valentine.' Some like 'Christmas Cheer' and 'Daisen' have white flowers edged with rose red.

But the show's not over when the flowers fade. New foliage emerges in colors ranging from bronzy pink to fiery red. Those colors last for 2-3 weeks and then the leaves turn green as they mature.
Varieties grown for their stunning new foliage color include 'Mountain Fire' and 'Flaming Silver.'

There are many varieties of Pieris japonica. Some are dwarf plants, such as 'Pygmaea,' which gets to about 18" tall and wide. Some have variegated leaves, such as 'Variegata,' which has a white margin along the edges. All are slow growing and attractive year around.

Lily of the valley shrubs are easy to care for in the Western Washington area. These plants like part-shade, and moist, acidic soil. Older plants can be limbed up to look like small trees. Pieris is often grouped with rhododendrons and azaleas, which have similar soil and sun requirements.

Friday, April 6, 2012

Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

Skagit Valley is home to the largest commercial flower bulb growing operations in the US. These companies host the annual Tulip Festival, which runs the entire month of April. Hundreds of acres of colorful bloom make this a popular event for both gardeners and photographers.

Row upon row of daffodils provide the warm-up act for the colorful show
of tulip blooms to come at the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival.
The exact bloom time of the tulip fields depends on the weather. This year's long winter and cool temperatures mean that the blooms will open a bit later this month than they have in other years. But don't let that slow you down. Start planning your trip now by visiting the Festival website. There you will find a map of the gardens, information about the growers, things to do and places to see. Plan on making a day of it and be sure to bring a camera. This is a wonderful outing for the whole family.

For a preview of what you'll see, including stunning photos of unusual tulip varieties, watch this video created by Travelingrandma. Gorgeous!

Thursday, April 5, 2012

Euphoric Over Euphorbia

Euphorbia characias wulfenii
OK, "euphoric" might be an exaggeration - I don't necessarily feel euphoric when I see one of these. I just thought it would make a catchy headline. Still, Euphorbia in its many forms is a striking plant. Getting double-takes on the streets of Seattle right now are these specimens of E. wulfenii, that stand about 4 feet tall with huge, chartreuse "flowers." These flowers, technically, are collections of brightly colored bracts. If you look closely you will see tiny "true" flowers nestled inside each bract cup.

There are about 2,000 species of Euphorbia. Probably the best known variety is the poinsettia (E. pulcherrima). Euphorbias can take many forms: shrubs, perennials, annuals and succulents. Most require hotter, drier conditions than we have in the Northwest, but there are several that do well here. In addition to E. wulfenii, look for Mrs. Robb's bonnet (E. amygdaloides robbiae), donkey tail spurge (E. myrsinites), E. palustris, and more at your local nursery.

Note that all plants in this family have white, milky sap that will irritate and even burn your skin. Be sure to wear rubber gloves and long-sleeved shirts when handling them. I've had some nasty burns working with these plants, even when I thought I was being careful. This sap is poisonous if ingested - the level of toxicity varies depending on the cultivar.

There is a variety of Euphorbia called a mole plant or gopher plant ( E. lathyris) because it is believed that the poisonous sap will kill burrowing rodents who attempt to feed on its roots. I've never known this to work. Moles eat worms and grubs, not plant material. For more on what doesn't work, here's an article from MoleCatchers. To get rid of moles, you have to set traps.